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How Germany is ending its 40-year long love affair with the fax machine

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected]
How Germany is ending its 40-year long love affair with the fax machine
The sign for a fax machine. Germany is phasing faxes out. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Armin Weigel

With a tear in the eye and a fond farewell, the German government will wave goodbye to its most beloved piece of technology - the fax machine - next year. We look at why it's taken them so long to break away from this relic of the 1960s.

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Though foreigners never tire of talking about the sad state of German technology, it's rare that the situation is summed up as well as it recently was on X: "In Germany," one user wrote recently, "5G is a brand of fax machine."

It may have been a joke, but to people living in the Bundesrepublik, the jibe rang uncomfortably true: no matter if the year is 2003 or 2023, the fax machine has truly become a symbol for everything that's wrong with German digitalisation. 

Though fax was invented in the 1960s, this handy telecommunication device didn't truly take off in Germany until 1980s and 90s, where it became a mainstay in companies and public offices. But after cementing its status, it never quite loosened its cast-iron grip.

Like the pillars of the Brandenburg Gate or the peaks of the Alps, the fax machine has remained an intransigent part of German life through thick and thin.

But now, as the world races towards superfast internet and embraces the potential of AI, the government has decided that it can no longer straddle two worlds.

From June 30th 2024 "at the latest", all fax machines will finally be banished from the halls and offices of the Bundestag, thanks to a new resolution from the Budget Committee on Thursday. 

READ ALSO: How the pandemic is bringing German bureaucracy out of the 1980s

By then, the government hopes, so much progress will have been made with digitalisation that fax machines are no longer needed.

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Reading between the lines of comments from Bundestag MPs, you may also get the sense that having fax machines in the seat of power of Europe's largest economy was getting a little embarrasing.

"In the age of digitalisation, they are completely superfluous," FDP MP Torsten Herbst told Bild on Friday. "And always cause astonishment among visitors to the Bundestag."

It may not seem like an especially drastic step, but in its move to end the use of the 1980s-style device, the central government is going one step further than the authorities in Cologne.

According to the Green Party faction in one of Germany's most populous cities, faxes in the city administration will be phased out "by 2028".

So what does this mean for Germany as a whole?

The fax of life 

As the second-hand electronics shops rub their hands with glee, it's hard not to ask whether the Bundestag's move to dispense with their fax machines could possibly be the beginning of the end of fax in the Bundesrepublik.

But a glance at some recent stats suggests that ridding Germans of their fax machines for good is going to be a long and arduous journey.

According to a recent survey, 80 percent of German businesses still use fax machines for office tasks, along with one fifth of doctors' surgeries.

The obsession with fax and generally outdated technology was something noted by readers of The Local when they were asked about the culture shocks they'd had in Germany. 

German Bundestag debating chamber
The debating chamber of the German Bundestag in Berlin. Fax machines are still used throughout the Bundestag. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

Siva Prasad Tripuraneni, 28, from India, said he appreciated "technological advancement" whenever he goes back home, having experienced the complete opposite during his time in Germany. 

Even at the height of the pandemic, when medical staff were struggling to cope with an influx of patients, hospitals in Baden-Württemberg would dutifully fax data on patients in intensive care over to the health authorities - and so, of course, would the high-tech testing labs. 

READ ALSO: From nudity to sandwiches: The biggest culture shocks for foreigners in Germany

In one particularly revealing anecdote, a political party that was barred from taking part in the 2021 Bundestag elections found it had just a few days to appeal the decision in writing. The party ended up resorting to a fax machine at a Hamburg copy shop to get its appeal to the Federal Court of Justice (BGH) in time. 

Of course, when the BGH attempted to respond, that correspondence was sent to the copy shop as well - causing no end of confusion for all concerned. 

Safe and secure

There are countless anecdotes like these, but the last one gets to the heart of some of the issues associated with Germany and its undying commitment to fax: legally, many bureaucratic processes need to be done in writing, but culturally many Germans are suspicious of digital communications.

Most revealingly, the resolution from the Budget Committee notes that services like email today offer encryption options "that guarantee the secure transmission of information". 

For that reason, it claims, fax machines are even superfluous from a security perspective.

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For years now, experts have been warning of the dangers of sending sensitive information via an insecure means such as fax.

Nevertheless, this ancient technology still seems to be held up as a bastion of security, much like the insistence that cash is somehow safer than card.

READ ALSO: Ask an expert: Why is cash still so popular in Germany - and is it changing?

With these attitudes in place, it seems like the Bundestag's move - though significant - won't move the needle significantly when it comes to digitalisation. 

And despite the best efforts of parties like the Free Democrats (FDP), it may be a good few years before the fax machine is gone entirely. 

Until then, foreigners will have to keep doing what many savvy folks have long since learned to do: sending all their comms in Germany via a fax app on their phone. 

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